Sunday, 25 September 2016

When Bambi Saw the Heart of Darkness: Review of Ringing Bell (1978 anime)

People think so little of children’s minds. When talking of children’s movies, any tone bleaker than perpetual cheer is ‘dark’. Into the Woods is ‘dark’. The NeverEnding Story is ‘dark’. How fragile do they think children are? No, Ringing Bell is dark. Not dark like Pixar – dark like Animal Farm. With a childlike style the movie explores the cruelty of nature.

Chirin’s mother warns him about the wolf. Chirin must never cross their pasture’s fence, for the wolf would gobble up a little lamb like him. True to his promise, Chirin stays within the pasture, but for nothing. The wolf breaks into their barn at night, slaughtering Chirin’s mother, before stealing away. Chirin vows he will train under the wolf, so, one day, he may escape the law of nature which decrees lambs must die. 

Ringing Bell manages two tones: the saccharine and the savage. Had the movie focussed solely on the former, only children could bear it, and those children would go unedified. Had it focussed on the latter, it would lose its vitalising contrast, whereby dark grows darker after light. Without the sugary sweetness of Chirin the clumsy lamb, the descent into darkness would have felt half-baked, or, worse, comical. Nor does the movie suffer from tonal whiplash, where all is bright until – Bang! – it’s dark. The opening sequence of blizzard-swept fields, overlaid with a melancholy song, creates a bittersweet-ness, lingering through the cutesy sections. Ringing Bell starts sweet, then darkness seeps in, gradually blotting out the light until only rage and despair remain.

The wolf genuinely intimidates. He does not cackle, nor sneer, nor monologue like a Disney villain. From his silent introduction, to his silhouette atop a mountain, he simmers with hostility. His first lines do not shatter the threat; he speaks full of contempt and certainty. That he does not kill Chirin suggests no latent morality. The wolf would never eat such a scrawny thing.

The film depicts nature’s cruelty. When the wolf kills Chirin’s mother, Chirin realises nature decrees the strong devour the weak, nature decrees some must die so others may live. A more honest message than the Circle of Life.

He despises how low he stands on the food chain, and so strives to climb upwards. He begs the wolf to train him, as if he does not blame the wolf for his mother’s death. He accepts that his mother died because she was a sheep and the wolf was a wolf. He rages not at the wolf, but at Nature. Initially, it appears Ringing Bell shall promote a moral about futile ambition, that Chirin is a lamb and could be no more. As an attempt to emulate predators, he attacks buffalo, who kick him away. Even gofers gang up on him. Contrast this with the wolf who effortlessly beats back a bear.

But this film explores more than the despair of the weak; it examines the despair of all. Chirin does climb the food chain to cheat death, but once at the top his drive for self-preservation mutates into a lust for domination. The film avoids the facile moral of ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ by stressing that neither Chirin nor the wolf have absolute power. Even at the top of the food chain life is lonely, brutish, and short.

Visually, the show has the hiccups expected from old anime. Limited animation is fine, but a few shots are too obviously static images, disrupting the illusion. Some night scenes are literally too dark. Otherwise, the aesthetic manages the balancing act of the film proper: it can depict the saccharine and the savage, and, more than that, make these extremes seem of a piece.

Whether you’re an adult or a child watch Ringing Bell. In less than an hour it goes places most children’s films – hell, most films – fear to tread. But, you know, if you are going to show it to children – you have been warned.  

[Screencaps taken from Eastern Star's DVD release.]

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